The Dogs of Bedlam Farm : An Adventure with Sixten Sheep, Three Dogs, Two Donkeys, and Me
"Dogs are blameless, devoid of calculation, neither blessed nor cursed with human motives. They can't really be held responsible for what they do. But we can." -from The Dogs of Bedlam Farm When Jon Katz adopted a border collie named Orson, his whole world changed. Gone were the two yellow Labs he wrote about in A Dog Year, as was the mountaintop cabin they loved. Katz moved into an old farmhouse on forty-two acres of pasture and woods with a menagerie: a ram named Nesbitt, fifteen ewes, a lonely donkey named Carol, a baby donkey named Fanny, and three border collies. Training Orson was a demanding project. But a perceptive dog trainer and friend told Katz: "If you want to have a better dog, you will just have to be a better goddamned human." It was a lesson Katz took to heart. He now sees his dogs as a reflection of his willingness to improve, as well as a critical reminder of his shortcomings.
Katz, whose books A Dog Year and Running to the Mountain earned him many faithful, dog-loving readers, here channels James Herriott's brand of agricultural humanism. It's a classic setup for amusing anecdotes: a 50-something "suburban rookie" buys a farm in upstate New York, stocking it with three border collies and a small herd of sheep. His skeptical wife agrees to the plan, but wisely forbids firearms, farm machinery and long trips in the pickup. This leaves plenty of latitude for adventures-lost sheep, horrible weather, the dramas of dog training and lamb birthing. Soon, the introspective author realizes that his interactions with dogs are about "trying to become a better human." After all, his dogs have unfailingly high expectations of him. The troublesome pup, Orson, becomes the great test of Katz's emotional maturity, requiring consistent discipline and love in the face of awful misbehavior (one of Orson's habits is eating sheep feces). "If we herd sheep for another decade or so," Katz writes, "I might make it: I might become a patient man." While there's no deeply surprising insight into human nature nor any particularly revealing information about canine behavior, these stories offer readers a potent stew of triumphs and failures, all tied together by the constancy of complicated, joyful, lovable dogs. Agent, Richard Abate at ICM. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 12, 2005
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Excerpt from The Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz
CITY OF GOD
BEDLAM: a place, scene, or state of uproar and confusion
Far in the distance, as the morning mists began to clear, I could see a livestock trailer heading west on Route 30 from Salem toward the hamlet of West Hebron. From this hill behind my new house, I could spot visitors approaching from miles away.
There were plenty of farms around this quadrant of upstate New York, lots of places livestock haulers might be going, but my guess was that this was Wilbur Price of Bethel, Pennsylvania, delivering a ram named Nesbitt and the ladies, fifteen dog-broke ewes.
Which meant it was time to walk down the hill. Change was just around the corner, big change.
For three border collies, there could be no more meaningful event than the arrival of sheep in their backyard. For me, the change was more complex, but a big transition nonetheless, another midlife crapshoot. I was stepping out of one existence and into another, a shift inexorably linked to these three dogs.
We all clambered down the hill as the trailer descended into town. In a few minutes, this farm, known around the county as the old Keyes place somehow I doubted it would ever be known as the old Katz place with its listing and peeling dairy barn, an even more askew pig barn, an overgrown chicken pen, and several other outbuildings, would be home once again to livestock. Everyone in the tiny village could look up the hill and see animals grazing, as they had for generations.
I was no farmer, and this place wouldn t really qualify as a working farm. I am a dog lover and writer, and this would be, in part, a dog-centric adventure with my border collies. Even before the animals arrived, in the few weeks since I d moved in and begun preparations, I could hardly believe the amount of work involved just in overseeing forty-two acres and a Civil War era farmhouse. I could only imagine how difficult and relentless real farmwork was, particularly in brutal winter. My work would be fractional in comparison, and I wouldn t rely on the farm to provide my family s livelihood an enormous difference.
Wilbur, a garrulous man in a giant baseball cap and overalls, was indeed waiting at the gravel driveway with his noisy cargo. We shook hands and chatted about the weather and the drive and his dicey encounters with fog en route. Wilbur, I realized, drove sheep and cows around all day and didn t want to pass up the chance for a more satisfying conversation.